Surrounded by the lush, verdant beauty of jungles and tropical beaches, it’s easy to be green
A fertile ribbon of land with the Pacific Ocean on the south and west, and the Caribbean Sea to the north, Central America is made up of seven countries that lie between Mexico and Panama. It’s home to a great diversity of both plant and animal species, with varied ecosystems ranging from sea coasts and mountain ranges to tropical forests and rich farmland. In addition to being very active geologically, Central America offers the outdoor enthusiast a multitude of opportunities to discover the marvels of the natural world. Central America is also the location of a number of exceptional eco resorts, many of them offering spas, yoga, and other healing experiences. And though the term eco resort may still conjure images of bare-bone accommodations (candles instead of light switches and cold showers), today’s eco resorts make it easier than ever for concerned travelers to stay true to their environmental standards while still enjoying a level of sophisticated comfort.
Frigate birds soar languidly overhead, circling the dock at Journey’s End Resort, where the smiling driver of my water taxi has just deposited me. Located on tranquil Ambergris Caye just off the coast of Belize, this low-key luxury resort exudes tropical charm and beachy tranquility. I’m shown to a banana yellow bungalow that sits in a curving row overlooking the beach, each cottage a different shade of sky or island fruit.
a scant quarter mile away, in clear view from my porch, the western hemisphere’s longest barrier reef (and the second-largest in the world) is marked by a line of waves breaking against it. Nearby, at the island’s tip, lies the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, world-renowned as a sanctuary for marine, reptile, and bird species. A row of brightly-hued kayaks and Hobie Cats dot the shore, and I’m told the hotel’s activities staff will be more than happy to give me a spin out to the reef across the sparkling water. Despite the temptation, I head directly for Serenity Spa. Situated mid-property, beyond the main guestroom area and pool (with a swim-up bar), the spa is more spacious than I’d anticipated for an eco resort. My therapist, Taz Ackerley, turns out to be an experienced pro, and delivers a deep tissue massage with a light coconut oil that’s the perfect antidote to the series of flights and boat taxis that have brought me here from Denver.
Before a scrumptious dinner overlooking the water at the open air Luna restaurant, I explore the resort, where green operating policies include water and energy conservation programs, low-flow toilets, extensive recycling, and the use of biodegradable cleaning supplies. An obvious effort was made to have the design and placement of buildings blend with the surroundings in a way that keeps guests deeply aware of the rich environment around them. A peek into the large conference room makes me smile: inside, it’s set up to resemble a thatched Tiki bar, and the floor of deep sand allows those caught up in meetings to still enjoy the sensation of digging their toes into the sand.
In the morning, after a breakfast of fruit and raisin pancakes made with coconut milk, I join several other guests for an excursion to the Mayan ruins on the mainland. The resort makes all the arrangements, from flights and boats to guides and lunches, so all we’re required to do is sit back and enjoy the adventure. After a short flight to the mainland and Belize City, we drive northwest along one of the country’s four main highways. From the district of Orange Walk, the journey to the ruins involves an hour or so trip by speedboat down the winding New River. Beneath the shade of bullet trees and cocoa palms, sleepy crocodiles sun on tree branches that extend out over small groupings of lily pads, while snail kites and ospreys soar and dip overhead. As we slowly navigate the river’s many twists and turns, our guide, Belize native George Gongora, tells us this is prime country for both jaguars and tapirs, but if any are about, they keep out of sight.
The extensive ruins at Lamanai, which translates to submerged crocodile, are still an active archeological site, operated by the National Institute of Culture and History’s Institute of Archaeology. Once a thriving city, Lamanai was believed to be occupied as early as the 16th century B.C. To date, only seven of hundreds of temples and other structures have been uncovered, including the impressive, stepped-pyramid Jaguar temple. Gongora tells us of the importance of jaguar symbolism in the Maya’s zoomorphic deity structure, where the highly worshiped jaguar was regarded as a war god. As we hike the paths and climb among the ruins, he also takes the time to identify local plants and trees, explaining how the Maya used them for medicine and spiritual rituals.
Back at the resort, dinner begins with a rich conch chowder made with pumpkin and sweet peppers, followed by a gingered-plum-glazed tuna. For dessert, it’s a moonlight cruise aboard a catamaran from the nearby town of San Pedro south along the island’s coast. Sailing is a popular pastime here, and the resort observes a strict policy of non-motorized watercraft for recreational use. The full moon shining down on the boat’s deck reminds me that thousands of years ago, here in this very place, this moon phase was an important component of many Mayan ceremonies.
My last day at Journey’s End starts with a half-hour-long Three Fregado de Cuerpo de Aucar with Guava Mango, which translates, I’m told, to the Three Sugar Body Scrub. Three different sizes of raw sugar are used for a complete body exfoliation. Spa director Jessica Waters explains that the largest granules remove tough, old skin, while the medium and smaller sizes act to refine and smooth. After rinsing, a rich body butter scented with guava and mango essential oils is applied. Waters says that she’ll happily customize a take-home batch of body butter with a choice of scents that also include cucumber, melon, lavender, and sweet vanilla (unscented is also an option).
In the afternoon, there’s another excursion to the mainland that’s once again completely organized by the resort. Gongora takes our small group to another site once sacred to the Maya for a jungle hike and tubing experience. We hike for about 45 minutes through thick jungle along the edge of Caves Branch River, which becomes an underground river flowing through a series of ancient caves once inhabited by the Maya. Along the way, Gongora stops to slice pieces of fresh sugar cane for us to try. The river, swollen from recent rains, is running fast today. We don headlamps and climb aboard our tubes, floating into caves that the Maya believed to be the entrance to their underworld, which they called Xibalba. The experience is at once eerie and beautiful, and as we float out into the daylight at the conclusion of the voyage, Gongora tells us that we have just experienced what the Maya viewed as being renewed and reborn.
On the way back to the resort, I sip a pineapple soda and contemplate the rebirth analogy. It seems appropriate for a wellness journey, and as we make our way back along the road between green tangles of forest, thick with singing birds, I raise my bottle and salute Belize, and everything growing and green.
If You Go:
Where to Stay
Journey’s End Resort
(800) 433-7300, www.aa.com
Daily flights to Belize City from major U.S. cities including Dallas, Orlando and Miami.
011 (501) 621-1312
Cave tubing, fishing trips, snorkeling and scuba adventures, excursions to Mayan ruins, manatee tours. Local, knowledgeable guides; all details taken care of.
San Pedro, Belize
For travel within Central America.
Maya Island Air
For travel within Central America.
011 (501) 223-1140
For more information about Belize, visit the country’s official tourism website:www.travelbelize.org
Nicaragua: Imagine miles of white sandy beaches, two varied coastlines, the largest area of primary-growth rainforest north of the Amazon, breathtaking
vistas, and historic colonial cities. Add an abundance of beautiful lakes, towering volcanoes (seven of them still active), and friendly native people, for a truly unforgettable vacation experience.
If Nicaragua isn’t tops on your list of vacation hot spots, you’re not alone. The country’s past tumultuous political history and horrendous civil war sixteen years ago still cast a shadow over this achingly beautiful and unspoiled paradise. But the times, they are a changing. The government is now a constitutional democracy and is currently rated as the safest in Central America, with tourism fast becoming a primary source of revenue.
Commercial flights into Nicaragua take you to its capital city of Managua, with a population exceeding one million. Most roads outside the city are rough and poorly maintained; you can make advance reservations for an SUV from Budget rentals, or book a guided tour. Since I was traveling solo, I used the excellent service of Marlon Rivera with Gray Line Tours.
Don’t expect to get a sense of the unspoiled, underdeveloped Nicaragua in the capital. Sadly, earthquakes in 1931 and 1972 destroyed most of the city’s colonial buildings. And with its clean and modern airport, U.S.-style shopping centers and choice of luxury hotels, this is now a typical big city, complete with congested streets and chain restaurants.
However, in Granada, a mere 27 miles away from the hustle and bustle of city life, I took a step back in time. Founded in 1524, this well-known colonial city is built around its main square, Parque Central. Most sites are in walking distance, or you can rent one of the many horse-drawn carriages to get the lay of the land. My time was limited, but I fell in love with the beautiful church of La Virgen de Guadalupe, and viewed pre-Columbian treasures along with an informative history lesson of this quant and colorful city at the Convento de iglesia de San Francisco museum.
Two not-to-be-missed natural wonders near Granada: Lake Nicaragua and the Mombacho volcano area. I’m drawn to the water (it’s the Pisces in me), so I was thrilled to tour the largest lake in Central America, Lake Nicaragua. In addition to its size, Lake Nicaragua is home to the only freshwater sharks in the world, and contains more than 360 lush volcanic islands, or isletas, many of which are privately owned. Kayaks are available to explore part of this 100-mile long lake, or book a guided motorboat as I did and just sit back and enjoy the ride.
The nearby dormant Mombacho Volcano is in a protected nature reserve and a beautiful example of the dry tropical forest typical of the area, which host only flora and fauna able to sustain six months of very heavy rains (May – November) followed by six months of almost no rainfall (December – April). I was enchanted by beautiful butterflies, the sight of howler monkeys lounging in the treetops, and the chance to try a ripe sweet coffee berry, plucked fresh from a bush on the coffee plantation that surrounds the volcano.
On clear days, travelers can take the guided drive to the top of Mombacho for a spectacular view of the countryside. Once on top, they’ll also find self-guided eco trails that take them through one of only two cloud forests in the region.
Since the day we arrived was too cloudy for a good view up top, my guide suggested a canopy tour instead. I summoned up all my courage for this incredible zip line trip across the jungle, stretching between 17 platforms situated from 10 to 100 feet above the ground. I am not normally the thrill-seeking type, but I vote this a not-to-be-missed experience.
After all of my touring adventures, I was more than ready for R&R at Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Eco-Lodge, the ultimate in all-inclusive eco lodges, located just north of the sleepy fishing and surfing village of San Juan del Sur, and about an hour drive from Granada. This stunning property is a project of nature conservation, community development, and reforestation, along with heavenly accommodations, a friendly and professional staff, and true four-star dining. Fair warning: The drive on mostly dirt roads is long, hot, and very bumpy. The resort can arrange transportation from Managua; inquire when you book your reservation.
My arduous ride was all but forgotten, however, as soon as I arrived at this breathtaking resort. The fifteen very private bungalows are built cliffside with views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding jungle. Solar panels provide warm water. Ideal for nature lovers, the main sleeping area is screened in, thankfully, to keep (most) insects and other jungle critters out; the deck is totally open to the elements and boasts amazing views of the ocean.
Morgan’s Rock is part of a full-scale tree farming, reforestation, and conversation project that extends over 4,500 acres. Over the past 4 years, they’ve planted 1.3 million hardwood and fruit trees and have set aside roughly 2,000 acres of primary forest strictly for conservation. I took the Magic of Reforestation Tour to view the impressive project and plant my very own tree. It’s one of more than 10 tours available, including sunrise/sunset kayaking, nature walks, mountain biking, snorkeling, horseback rides, and fishing. Massage and yoga are also available and require advance booking.
As for relaxing, I preferred the walking meditation of long strolls on the beautiful private beach. When I needed a break from the intense tropical sun, I parked myself in a hammock at one of several covered beachside cabanas. In fact, I found I needed to rest up for my trek back to my bungalow every night! Morgan’s Rock is not for the infirm, or exercise-adverse. You reach your room by first crossing a 350-foot suspension bridge high above the jungle floor (don’t worry, it’s very safe) and then climb many stairs up the steep cliff to your bungalow. Generally, the higher the room number, the higher the climb, a good thing to keep in mind when making your reservations.
It wasn’t easy saying adios to such a memorable place, but fortunately I left for Norome Villas, an enchanting resort located next to the ancient crater lake, Laguna de Apoyo. The villas of Norome are also built up on the jungle hillside. Walking up and down the steep road to reach your villa is optional however, since a small van is available to transport you at most any time of the day or night. Norome offers traditional-style hotel rooms, or villas with up to three bedrooms, full kitchens, and dining/living room areas “perfect for extended family vacations.
Wilfrido Salazar, Norome’s new operations manager, tells me that the spa should be completed in 2007. In the meantime, you can schedule an excellent hour-long massage, as I did, at the hands of Jaime Franco, the resident massage therapist, for a mere $30.
The road in and out of Norome is newly paved and makes for easy day trips to Granada and Masaya, the home of many local handicraft markets, full of beautiful pottery, fine hammocks, and intricate woodwork.
The shining star of the resort, however, is the 23,000-year-old Lake Apoyo, formed after the volcano’s last eruption. As I dined al fresco at the resort’s lakefront restaurant, I drank in a stunning view, complete with the Mombacho volcano beckoning in the distance. The lake itself is perfect for kayaking or wind surfing (no motors allowed). Although most of the shoreline is volcanic rock, the water is clear and bathtub warm. Salazar invited me on a peaceful 6 a.m. kayaking trip and swim, when the lake was at its calmest and the water as smooth as glass.
During my six-day tour, I was only able to cover a very small portion of the country; merely scratching the surface of what Nicaragua has to offer the adventurous. Certainly, part of Nicaragua’s charm is that it’s still a hidden gem, without the hordes of turistas found in other tropical climes. My advice? Don’t wait for better roads and more development. Go now while you can still experience its beauty alongside the thrill of discovery.
If You Go:
Where to Stay
Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Eco-lodge
Located about 40 minutes outside of San Juan del Sur
Norome Villas at Laguna de Apoyo
Laguana de Apoyo, 30 minutes outside of Granada
Gray Line Tours Nicaragua
Budget Car Rental
For general information on Nicaragua:
Vonalda M. Utterback
There’s a phrase used throughout Costa Rica as a greeting, farewell, and general expression of happiness: “Pura vida!” Translated as “pure life,” it means, loosely, “Life is good.”
And why not? Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, enjoy Central America’s highest standard of living, a higher literacy rate than the United Sates, and a lower infant mortality rate. The government pays for health care and does not maintain an army. Slightly smaller than West Virginia, Costa Rica spans a narrow stretch of Central America, bordered on the north by Nicaragua and by Panama on the south. More than 25 percent of its land is set aside for conservation, and eco tourism is a thriving industry. Among the natural features that draw visitors are the mountainous terrain rife with rainforests, cloud forests, volcanoes, raging rivers, exotic flora and fauna, and endless beaches suitable for gnarly surfers and lazy paddlers. And now Costa Rica’s resorts are adding spas.
Upon arrival in San Jose, my husband, Kipp and I were whisked off to the smaller airport in Pavos for a Paradise Air charter flight to Tambor on the Nicoya Penninsula. Paradise Air is a fledgling enterprise, founded by a former corporate pilot for SKG Dreamworks who fell in love with Costa Rica. Soaring over mountains toward the Pacific Ocean, we understood why he had named it Paradise Air; the emerald landscape is enchanting.
Having traveled for over 15 hours when we arrived at Florblanca in Santa Teresa, we were overwhelmed by the lush landscape as we made our way down the winding path toward the open-air reception desk, with the sun setting over the beach beyond. Before we could put down our bags we were handed Florblanca’s signature welcome drink, a refreshing blend of tamarind, ginger, and lime juice.
Our weariness lifted when we entered our luxurious, spacious villa. Florblanca’s villas have breezy, comfortable living rooms and open decks strung with inviting hammocks from which to enjoy the tropical plants, bird songs, resonant surf, and lulling sun. Air-conditioned bedrooms feature romantic canopy beds with soothing, cream-colored linens; thoughtful touches included a CD player and selection of tranquil music, and two sarongs for use at the beach, pool, or lounging around the villa. But the biggest surprise is the bathroom, enclosed in its own walled-in garden, with an open-air shower and sunken tub.
The following morning, I joined the Ashtanga-based vinyasa yoga class. The classroom walls are open to nature on three sides, allowing the breeze to cool the space and the waves to provide a tranquil soundtrack.
Florblanca offers a variety of activities, including zip-line adventures, hiking tours, surfing lessons, and horseback riding. When I met back up with Kipp, I was eager to sign up for a zip-line tour through the waterfalls of nearby Montezuma, but he convinced me to slow down and enjoy being in the moment at Florblanca. He was right; we would have many zip-line opportunities, but Florblanca was the perfect spot to decompress after our journey. We took a long walk along the white sand beach, watched the surfers, bodysurfed, and had a brief siesta on one of the hotel’s beachfront poster-bed palapas.
To further my relaxation, I had an Integral Massage with Stephano. In a candle-lit thatched-roof cabana, he banished my remaining travel aches. For now, Florblanca has just one spa cabana, but new facilities to accommodate a full range of spa and salon services are in the works. “It is going to be very intimate and romantic,” says Susan Money, Florblanca’s founder. “The plan is to build separate little bamboo buildings with air conditioning and waterfalls. Each building will provide a different spa service. These buildings will be connected by stone paths, well planted so that one feels deep in the jungle. We will have a main reception building with bathrooms, tubs, and a juice bar. It will be first class and extraordinarily beautiful.”
After my massage, I floated back to my villa to rest before dinner. Florblanca’s open-air restaurant, Nectar, radiates romance, with generously spaced tables on multiple levels and a cushioned private dining platform across the pool. The creative menu borrows from several cultures (sushi mingles with risotto) and has many vegetarian options as well as fresh fish. Staphano’s morning Ashtanga class gave me the opportunity to burn some of the calories from my vegetable, noodles, and tofu dinner before we caught the Paradise Air flight back to Pavos.
Our next flight, aboard the also aptly named Nature Air, brought us south to the Osa Peninsula, which National Geographic described as the most biologically intense place on earth. We were greeted at the Puerto Jimenez airstrip and driven in a Range Rover to Lapa Rios. The rugged vehicle proved necessary as we crossed several rivers along the rutted road into the rainforest. Lapa Rios was founded by a Minnesota couple who purchased 1,000 acres of Central America’s last-remaining lowland tropical rainforest, adjacent to Corcovado National Park, intent on preserving this crucial buffer zone. This eco lodge is all about conservation and sustainability, without stinting on gracious hospitality.
Upon arrival, we were handed cool, wet face cloths along with a welcome drink of mora (local mountain blackberry), cas (sour guava), maracuya (passion fruit) and mango. At check-in, guests receive flashlights for navigating the grounds after dark and a refillable water bottle, part of the lodge’s green initiatives. The impressive thatched-roof main lodge features a dramatic spiral staircase to a third-story observation deck with breathtaking views of the ocean and forest canopy. Those reluctant to climb can still see plenty from the treetop-level deck adjoining the dining area.
Lapa Rios is not for anyone averse to climbing. Bungalows are set into a steep mountainside, strategically positioned so that each screened-in chamber and open-air deck affords both privacy and a sweeping view over the forest to the ocean. Decks feature lounge chairs, hammocks, and garden showers; the large indoor showers have two heads and under one of them, a pebble base provides natural reflexology. Accommodations are luxurustica basic, comfortable furniture combined with dramatic elements, such as ultramodern bathroom sinks and faucets. Our bungalow was among the furthest from the lodge an ascent of more than 200 steps before every meal. We considered it incidental exercise, which we needed because the meals were great and the portions were huge.
Eating local is part of sustainability, and the restaurant highlights a local plant each day: for example, taro or yucca chips with salsa. The waitstaff is also local; our waiter Ivan had recently chosen to advance from a mechanical repair position to the restaurant, which required him to learn English, a valuable skill that Lapa Rios teaches employees. There’s no fancy foreign chef, instead a team of locals, who have learned culinary skills, prepare the meals. The staff contributes green ideas such as tabletop salsa holders and placemats made of durable, biodegradable, prolific bamboo. The bartender developed the concept, and the local craftsman who created them now has a successful business selling these and other bamboo products. Lapa Rios also funds the local school as part of its sustainability program.
These policies as well as recycling and energy-efficiency practices; a low-impact salt-water system to keep the pool water clean; a pig farm to transform kitchen food waste into methane gas that powers the staff kitchen; and passive solar systems that provide hot water to the bungalows, are highlighted on Lapa Rios’s “Green Living” tour. We also took a waterfall hike with Ifi, one of three staff naturalists. Hiking through the rainforest, she pointed out nature’s wonders: young trees with spikes that protect them until they grow strong; a monkey ladder vine growing upward from the ground, which contains a natural form of acetaminophen; a tiny, brilliant poison dart frog. Coatimundis (mammals similar to raccoons) scampered across the forest floor and spider monkeys swung through the treetops. We splashed through the Carbonera River from one waterfall to another, where we swam, before hiking back to our lodge.
While Lapa Rios offers many eco tours, there’s little reason to leave the premises to seek out wildlife, it comes to you; just slow down and open your senses. We awoke to the cacophony of howler monkeys, followed by a concert of bird songs. A rustling noise alerted us to the treetop transit of a pack of squirrel monkeys, followed by the howlers. Giant blue Morpho butterflies and iridescent hummingbirds visited our garden, and toucans perched on the thatched roof. Scarlet macaws “Lapa Rios’s namesake bird” flew along the shoreline. While Lapa Rios has a massage room and a yoga platform with breathtaking ocean views, our yoga practice was simply to look and listen with appreciation.
From Lapa Rios, a Range Rover delivered us to Crocodile Bay Resort, where we were to stay for a night. Crocodile Bay’s pride and joy is their 5,000-square-foot spa, a Colonial-style refuge from the sultry sun, with cool tile floors, ten treatment rooms, a gleaming dressing area, and a spacious lounge.
The year-old spa has an extensive list of services, including treatments with such indigenous elements as Costa Rican coffee, bamboo, and Selva de Osa, a local mineral-rich mud. I booked the Deep Facial Spa treatment, which includes a masque of Costa Rican volcanic mud to regenerate cells and remove impurities, perfect for my sun-drenched skin. As the mud dried on my face, my esthetician administered a hand massage, then moved on to massage my upper chest, shoulders, and neck. After removing the masque, she ended with a facial massage.
The spa at Crocodile Bay caters to a species common to environments rich in marine life: “fishermen’s widows” left ashore when their men depart early in the morning for sport fishing, the resort’s primary draw. Many fishermen also avail themselves of the spa to soothe their muscles after a long day on the water. Most are up at sunrise to enjoy the seemingly endless breakfast buffet before heading out on the Gulfo Dolce, which opens into the Pacific Ocean, with a private captain on one of the resort’s 39 boats. The Gulf is a fisherman’s dream, a thriving habitat for many prized species, including tuna, marlin, dorado, sailfish, and grouper. Dolphins, sea turtles, manta rays, and several species of whales are commonly sighted on the water.
Kipp and I scanned the twenty-two eco tours offered by Crocodile Bay, selecting a serene sunset kayak tour through the mangrove estuary. Our guide Danilo identified birds by sight and song, pointing out lizards and crabs as we paddled. When the sun dipped toward the horizon, we carried our kayaks over a sand dune, jumped into the ocean, and then paddled back along the sheltered bay to the resort, just in time for the dinner buffet.
The next day we finally had our zip-line tour; a steep and narrow dirt road took us to the hilltop starting point, where we donned climbing harnesses and learned how to safely soar through the treetops on a wire. One-by-one we stepped off the platform and zipped through the canopy, traveling nearly a mile through virgin forest over seven exhilarating glides.
We arrived at nearby Black Turtle Lodge a few hours too late to watch the last of several hundred newborn sea turtles scramble from the black sands of Playa Preciosa into the gentle ocean waves. The Lodge is right on the beach; dense jungle obstructs the view, but the lulling sound of waves permeates. Nestled within dense native plantings, Black Turtle’s two treehouse cabinas, each feature a screened bedroom fifteen feet in the air with cozy covered decks plus a ground-level bedroom and enclosed, open-air bathroom. Two “cabin-ettas” are tucked within the lush gardens, each of which is assigned private facilities in a central bathhouse. Rooms feature simple, comfortable bamboo furnishings; stylish touches include voluptuous tropical flower arrangements and luxurious linens. Owner Nico Zimmerman explained that reclaimed wood accounts for 95 percent of the lodge’s construction materials and solar power provides electricity. The Lodge has a large screened yoga studio and a covered hammock platform, the perfect size for my yoga mat.
While Nico would have arranged any number of activities “bodywork, yoga classes, and eco adventures” we chose to stay put. Midway through our trip, it was time to recharge, lying in a sheltered hammock, watching hummingbirds and butterflies, bodysurfing at the beach, or chatting with Nico, who left a high-powered career in luxury hotel and spa management to purchase this piece of paradise. Awakened before dawn by the now-familiar cry of the scarlet macaw, we headed to the beach; accompanied by Nico’s dogs and bright yellow songbirds, we strolled along, enjoying the sunrise over Panama, across the water. With no trace of other people, we threw off our clothes and ran into the ocean’s embrace, bobbing blissfully in the gentle waves. Later, a tropical storm gave us an excuse to nestle in our rustic jungle aerie, relishing the rain’s rat-a-tat on the roof. At night, we wandered winding paths illuminated by candlelight, to enjoy a simple meal of local vegetables, tofu, and fish, at Nico’s communal table.
Nature Air transported us to our next airstrip: Nosara, on the Pacific coast. We felt no environmental guilt about flying to avoid the notoriously bad roads, since Nature Air offsets its emissions by funding Costa Rican tree-planting programs and provides free flights to national park system employees. Such sustainable policies are also the norm at Harmony Hotel, a former surfer’s dive that has been lovingly reborn as a swank, low-key, high-style getaway under the same environmentally conscious management company as Lapa Rios, Cayuga.
Harmony offers two types of accommodations, large, detached Bungalows with a sitting area, deck, sunken tubs, and massive showers; or poolside Cocos Rooms featuring private garden patios with hammocks and outdoor showers. We missed a taste-test of the hotel’s newest feature “a raw foods and juice bar” but arrived just in time for the opening of “The Healing Centre of Radiant Awakening.” Rather than tear down the owners’ former house, the hotel took the environmentally responsible route of adaptive re-use, remodeling it as a stylish spa and meditation/yoga studio. Their pool is now a water-lily pond, providing habitat for fish, turtles, and wading birds, and attracting lizards and other creatures grateful for a drink in the dry season. The spa currently offers massage, body treatments, manicures, and pedicures as well as ear coning. When new plantings grow in, guests will be able to sit on a garden bench by the foot-rinse faucets and pluck loofas or bananas from the trees for use in their treatments. I enjoyed a shiatsu-accented massage and a rebalancing treatment combining craniosacral, Trager release therapy, deep-tissue work, and other techniques from Tammy, the spa director.
Harmony’s grounds feature mostly native plants, which require less upkeep and provide a fauna-friendly environment. Rooms are stocked with luxe, biodegradable Red Flower amenities. As at Lapa Rios, the pool utilizes environmentally friendly salt instead of harsh chlorine. Covered walkways and ceiling fans keep the open dining area cool, while contributions to tree-planting programs offset carbon emissions from the in-room air conditioning. Harmony also hires and trains local workers; some were still learning English but all radiated friendliness and hospitality. Since the owners are vegetarian, the menu had plenty of vegan options, including tofu and seitan dishes.
When we learned that Olive Ridley Sea Turtles were nesting at nearby Playa Ostional, the hotel booked us an evening tour. Our guide described the turtles’ plight as he led us along the moonlit beach with a flashlight covered in red cellophane so as not to disturb the “arribada.” We watched hundreds of turtles struggling ashore; digging nests in the sand; dropping, then burying their eggs; and scurrying to meet their mates back in the ocean. Of the thousands of eggs laid that night, very few baby turtles will survive. Later we learned that Harmony is trying to help make its own beach, Playa Guiones, hospitable to turtles once again through a guest tree-planting program.
Our final destination took us to a mountaintop high above San Jose. Pura Vida Wellness Retreat & Spa proved a perfect place to end our journey. Since it was a quiet time of year, I was able to partake in intimate twice-daily yoga classes. Pura Vida has five yoga studios, but we remained in the largest hall, which is dramatically cantilevered over the hillside; two walls of windows provide stunning views.
Though I had never tried Watsu, the circular, open-air Watsu pool at Pura Vida, perched on a hillside and sheltered from the sun was irresistibly inviting. In the warm water Nati, the therapist, explained that she would use techniques that took me underwater if I wanted, and I agreed to put myself in her hands. It proved a wise choice; from the start, I closed my eyes and felt comfortable as she worked with me on the water’s surface. All tension released as Nati maintained gentle back and forth flowing movements; with my legs supported by small flotation rings, I felt like sea grass swaying in the ocean current as my joints released. Nati gave me a nose plug to signal the start of immersions. I followed nonverbal signals to hold my breath, and she gently took me under. I felt as flexible as an otter while Nati methodically guided me underwater and back to the surface. Some describe Watsu as a feeling of rebirth, but my sensations were of freedom of movement and nurturing care.
On our last day, we took a hike through one of Costa Rica’s largest coffee plantations, which shares the mountaintop with Pura Vida, relishing the view of several volcanoes along the way. We picked and tasted a few red berries from the coffee bushes as our guide explained the significance of this agricultural product and the coffee production process. Afterward, hikers enjoyed a whipped-cream-topped coffee confection at Pura Vida’s dining hall.
The hall had an outdoor deck where Kipp and I enjoyed our buffet-style meals, though most guests stayed inside since the high elevation made for cooler temperatures. Indeed, it was actually cold at night; we appreciated the cozy comforter in our spartan A-frame accommodations, as we looked out over the twinkling city lights below. The cold did not disturb the vibrant tropical flowers that beautified the landscape. It did, however, prepare us for our return to winter in New England.
If You Go:
Where to Stay
Black Turtle Lodge
Playa Plantanares, Osa Peninsula
011 (506) 735-5005
Crocodile Bay Resort
Puerto Jimenez, Osa Peninsula
Santa Teresa, Nicoya Penninsula
011 (506) 640-0232
The Harmony Hotel
Nosara, Nicoya Penninsula
011 (506) 682-4114
Carbonera, Osa Penninsula
011 (506) 735-5130 or 011 (506) 735-5281
Pura Vida Wellness Retreat & Spa
Scheduled flights within Cost Rica and to Panama and Nicargua; charter flights, specialty tours and other travel services.
“The world’s first and only zero-emissions airline.”
(800) 235-9272, www.natureair.com
Charter flights within Costa Rica and to Panama and Nicaragua on brand new planes; air safari tours and other travel services.
The only U.S. F.A.A. Part 129 approved commercial operator
011 (506) 231-0938 or (506) 296-3600;
U.S. toll free: 011 (877) 412-0877
For general information about Costa Rica: www.visitcostarica.com
Central America Eco-Addresses
In lush and lovely Central America, multiple options await environmentally minded travelers in search of a healing experience.
Hacienda del Mar Eco Village
Pearl Islands, Panama
(866) 433-5627, www.haciendadelmar.net
Located on its own private island within the chain of Pearl Islands, a short flight from Panama City. Features: Organic food, freshly caught seafood, natural reefs, 14,400 acres of rainforest, learning tours about native wildlife, bungalow accommodations.
Xanadu Island Resort
San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize
An easy stroll from the small, bustling town of San Pedro, Xanadu has its own private nature reserve. Features: Complimentary bicycles and kayaks for exploring the island, 19 condominium suites with fully equipped kitchens, central air, ceiling fans, cable television.
Finca Esperanza Verde Ecolodge, Organic Coffee Farm and Nature Preserve
Winner of the Sustainable Tourism Award for Conservation in 2004, Finca Esperanza Verde (Green Hope Farm) is located on central Nicaragua’s verdant mountain slopes. Features: Butterfly house and breeding project; organic shade-grown coffee cultivation; solar power; spring-fed, certified, potable water; hiking trails leading to waterfalls; jungle trekking with multiple bird species, orchids, and medicinal plants.
The Lodge at Pico Bonito
La Ceiba, Honduras
(888) 428-0221, www.picobonito.com
The Lodge donates a portion of its cabin charges to La Fundacion del Parque Nacional Pico Bonito, a not-for-profit organization that preserves and promotes Pico Bonito National Park. Also, La Ceiba-based Adelante Foundation (www.AdelanteFoundation.org) is helping eliminate poverty by providing loans to poor women in rural Honduras to help start their own businesses. Features: Tropical butterfly farm, more than 325 species of birds, mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, sea kayaking, touring the ancient Mayan ruins of Copƒ¡n, and snorkeling amidst the coral reefs of the Bay Islands.
Chimino’s Island Lodge
Punta de Chimino, Guatemala
Located on the Petexbaton Lagoon in Guatemala’s jungle region. Five palm-thatched bungalows overlooking the jungle and lagoon, each constructed from hardwood trees that have naturally fallen. Features: Hammocks and a relaxing view of the lagoon; floating dock for sun-bathing, swimming, and fishing; nature hikes; canoeing; bird watching; archaeological tours to Mayan sites.
Xandari Resort & Spa and Xandari by the Pacific
Alajuela and Playa Esterillos
Este, Costa Rica
(866) 363-3212, www.xandari.com
Set amidst coffee plants, fruit orchards, tropical flowers, and exotic gardens, Xandari’s onsite organic greenhouse
provides vegetables for the restaurant. Services at the Spa Village include facials, exotic wraps, and full-body massages. Features: Hiking through forest and
bamboo groves, bird watching, swimming, excursions to nearby Poas Volcano, Centro Neotropico Biological Reserve, botanical gardens, rainforest canopy, and Carara Biological Reserve.
Tabacon Grand Spa & Thermal Resort
La Fortuna de San Carlo, Costa Rica
(506) 519-1900, www.tabacon.com
Located at the base of Arenal Volcano and surrounded by tropical rainforest, Tabacon’s practices include the use of biodegradable, organic products,
providing all hot water via the natural hot springs, and engaging in reforestation programs for native species. Features: Trips to Arenal National Park and Lake Arenal, and locally inspired spa treatments such as Costa Rica Volcanic Stone Massage.
Perkin Lenca Mountain Hotel
Perquin, Moraza¡n, El Salvador
(503) 2680-4046, www.perkinlenca.com
Located in El Salvador’s largest natural area, less than a mile from the historical town of Perquan on the Nahuaterique mountain range, and built to respect and showcase the natural environment. Coffee farm and organic herb and vegetable garden onsite. Features: Bird-watching, nature hikes, waterfalls, caves.
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